A smarter network than you?

Weinberger makes the point, over and over again, that “knowledge is becoming a property of the network, rather than of individuals who know things, of objects that contain knowledge, and of the traditional institutions that facilitate knowledge” (182). By attacking our epistemological assumptions, Weinberger is showing us just what the internet is capable of providing seekers of knowledge. He goes out of his way to disavow “technodeterminism,” but holds that “there are some basic elements of the Net experience shared by almost anyone… that bear directly on how we understand knowledge” (174). Although Weinberger then describes several attributes of the internet which affect its scholarly utility, they are all more or less presented in a positive light. A truly objective, non-technodeterminist viewpoint, however, would be able to acknowledge that the internet’s evolution of discursive modes is a lateral shift which brings many potential problems as well as benefits. That these changes affect the very nature of our perceptions of knowledge makes this topic pertinent to all.

The abundance of material online creates a situation where paywalls, often the lifeblood of any publishing firm hoping to provide fair compensation for decent writing, lead to information “ghost towns”. Weinberger writes, rightly, that most people encountering a paywall are likely to use another similar, albeit free, source (175). There is nothing about the internet which makes it fundamentally biased towards open-source everything. Content creators will still need to eat, yet the abundance of similar-yet-slightly-inferior content means that audiences will have no real reason to pay. Additionally, Weinberger states that “links erode authorial control” (177), by providing any given work’s source material at the click of a mouse. Although facilitating quick cross-reference of source material is vital to verifying a scholar’s work, links can just as easily be used for cherry-picked counter-arguments and straw men. Ask any of the tutors at Oxford — the learning process frequently requires interface with one single authority. The idea is to digest the syncretic work of one, not only with more exposure and expertise, but optimally situated to guide the learner through their own particular society.

Oxford gets brought up by Weinberger himself, when he points out that “a notice that 99.9 percent of an eBay seller’s 14,000 transactions have been rated as satisfactory is a better guide than knowing that the seller teaches at Oxford” (188). However, this is a clear false equivalency. Weinberger mentions earlier that books came embodied with their own kinds of authoritative metadata, simply within the quality of their binding. What, then, could an eBay seller’s satisfaction rating compare to the physical market where you are able to fully inspect any and all goods you wish to purchase? True, the internet is eroding traditional notions of credentials. But the principles behind credentialing remain: there is a need to verify the truth by providing a certain richness of metadata.

Comprehensive metadata for the whole web is still just a dream, however. Even if the idea of a Semantic Web formed through “linked data” were available (187), it’s not clear that real knowledge would be more readily available — the network would simply be able to tell which knowledge would be most relevant to your own particular perspective. Although Weinberger has some bright ideas on how the internet is changing the nature of knowledge, he spends too little time pondering how this fundamental shift might, in many ways, leave people in the dark.